By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
This Thanksgiving, you may want to thank whichever God you pray to that you’re not Ukrainian. For chances are that, had you lived in 20th-century Ukraine, you would have died an early and violent death.
Fittingly, November 25 is Holodomor Remembrance Day, which commemorates the genocidal famine unleashed by Joseph Stalin and his minions on the Ukrainian peasantry. No fewer than 4 million — and, according to some estimates, as many as 7 to 10 million — people starved to death in the six months between November 1932 and May 1933.
In addition to the destruction of the Ukrainian peasantry, the Russian Communist regime also eliminated large chunks of the Ukrainian cultural intelligentsia — journalists, artists, poets, writers, priests — and of the Ukrainian Party organization, which had crossed a red line by actively pursuing a policy of “Ukrainization” and thereby threatening the hegemony of the Russian language and culture.
Rafael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish scholar who coined the term genocide, wrote the following about Stalin’s policies toward Ukrainians: “This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”
According to Lemkin, the Ukrainian genocide consisted of four components: “The first blow is aimed at the intelligentsia, the national brain, so as to paralyze the rest of the body. The second was “an offensive against the churches, priests, and hierarchy, the ‘soul’ of Ukraine. The third prong of the Soviet plan was aimed at the farmers, the large mass of independent peasants who are the repository of the tradition, folk lore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit, of Ukraine. The weapon used against this body is perhaps the most terrible of all, starvation. The fourth step in the process consisted in the fragmentation of the Ukrainian people by the addition to Ukraine of foreign peoples, especially Russians, and by the dispersion of the Ukrainians throughout Eastern Europe.”
The Holodomor was just the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2008 study of the Moscow-based Institute of Demography, Ukraine suffered close to 15 million “excess deaths” between 1914 and 1948:
- 1.3 million during World War I;
- 2.3 million during the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and the famine of the early 1920s;
- 4 million during the Holodomor;
- 300,000 during the Great Terror and the repressions in Western Ukraine;
- 6.5 million during World War II, when Nazi Germany treated Jews, Gypsies and Slavs as brutes and subhumans;
- 400,000 during the post-war famine and the destruction of the Ukrainian nationalist movement.
That comes out to 14.8 million in the space of about 40 years, averaging 370,000 Ukrainians per year.
Imagine living in that kind of society for that many years.
Postwar Germany’s transformation into a democratic state eliminated one source of mass death for Ukrainians. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened to Ukraine’s north and east. The “evil empire,” as President Ronald Reagan rightly called the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991, but post-Soviet Russia’s imperial ambitions and bloodthirsty methods remained — as did Moscow’s obsession with Ukraine.
From the start, the Kremlin attempted to compel Ukraine to become a vassal state. President Boris Yeltsin employed soft power — the Commonwealth of Independent States — and feigned outrage at the alleged persecution of Russians in the newly independent non-Russian states. Vladimir Putin continued with soft power — propaganda, infiltration of Ukraine’s strategic institutions with Russian agents, economic blackmail — until the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 persuaded him that Ukraine could only be brought back into the fold by force and violence. Crimea was annexed, the Donbas was invaded, and then, in 2022, Putin initiated a massive invasion and genocidal war, which continues to this day.
The Economist magazine estimates that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed. The number of dead civilians may be just as high. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes. Cities, roads, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, museums and universities have been bombed to smithereens. The damage wrought by Russian troops has been estimated at $4 trillion. It will take decades for Ukraine and its multiethnic population to recover from this war and genocide.
Back in 1932-1933, the world was largely indifferent to what was transpiring in Ukraine. The New York Times correspondent, Walter Duranty, even pooh-poohed the tragedy unfolding in the Ukrainian countryside.
This time, the world — or at least the Western world — has reacted differently. It has expressed outrage and concern and provided Ukraine with financial assistance and military supplies.
The question facing Western, and particularly American policymakers, is quite simple: Will they continue to resist Putin’s genocidal war or will they let Ukraine’s people down once again?
Or, to put the question even more starkly: Are they for or against genocide?
By next year’s Thanksgiving and Holodomor Remembrance Day, we’ll know the answer.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”